MCC PhD general exam answer 1


Below is the complete text of my response to the first of two exam questions I and my fellow PhD students received as the culmination of our required yearlong departmental doctoral theory seminar. My essay received a score of pass, on a binary scale of pass or fail, as well as kind comments from our professors Paula Chakravartty and Lisa Gitelman. I wrote it from May 25-27 2020 according to the following instructions:

Your completed exam is due in 48 hours. Answer the following question, define your terms and support all your theses and propositions with citations from the syllabi readings. Do not use any readings from outside the two seminar syllabi. Students are expected to engage with the questions specifically. Exams that do not explicitly answer the provided question will receive a failing grade. Your answer should be roughly 10 - 15 pages in length, double-spaced in 12-point type. Include a short bibliography and number your pages.

Question: We are living through an extraordinary crisis of social, political and cultural transformation. What theorists that you have encountered in Doc Sem I help you make some sense of the current moment we find ourselves in, if we consider the recurring themes of the role of media and culture in addressing inequality and the political? In your paper, you can reflect (briefly) on your observations of the pandemic, but spend the substance of the essay engaging with at least five scholars across at least three separate weeks covered in our seminar. You are welcome to draw on additional readings from Doc Sem II if that is helpful for your answer.

essay text

As I grapple with modern social, political and cultural crises, recent and contemporary Marxist thinkers including Frantz Fanon, Louis Althusser, Stuart Hall, Tiziana Terranova, Anna Tsing, and Nancy Fraser have proven the most helpful to my thinking regarding the role of media and culture in addressing political matters including inequality today. I draw inspiration from their building on what is useful from the classical Marxist tradition to make sense of their own circumstances, none of which feel remote from ours, without feeling beholden to predetermined concepts or conclusions – the better to address a breadth of topics not fully covered by 19th century or early 20th century theorists. In particular, the thorny question of a materialist analysis of the so-called “superstructure”, defined to include politics, culture, and media, remains critical to transforming the fundamentally unequal economic and social “base”, or mode and relations of production, by organizing adequate political responses to longstanding problems arising from working-class consent to oppressive ideas that ultimately serve the status quo of capitalism and imperialism. This understanding is equally crucial to contend with the unequal impacts of developments like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic, which blur distinctions between social and natural causes and consequences.

In “The Problem of Ideology – Marxism Without Guarantees”, Stuart Hall justifies his intervention with the statement that “Marx developed no general explanation of how social ideas worked, comparable to his historico-theoretical work on the economic forms and relations of the capitalist mode of production” (29), and defines the titular problem of ideology as:

“to give an account, within a materialist theory, of how social ideas arise… The problem of ideology, therefore, concerns the ways in which ideas of different kinds grip the minds of masses, and thereby become a ‘material force.’ In this, more politicized, perspective, the theory of ideology helps us to analyze how a particular set of ideas comes to dominate the social thinking of a historical bloc… It has also to do with the processes by which new forms of consciousness, new conceptions of the world, arise, which move the masses of the people into historical action against the prevailing system. These questions are at stake in a range of social struggles.” (29)

Hall briefly highlights the connections among ideology, culture and media in characterizing “the real developments which have taken place in the means by which mass consciousness is shaped and transformed – the massive growth of the ‘cultural industries’” (29), but technological change and the attendant cultural shifts are not a focus of the discussion. Tiziana Terranova’s “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy” gives an updated theoretical treatment of computer-mediated forms of labor and culture, including the “minoritarian, gendered and raced character of the Internet population” (Terranova 42) who perform the “free labor [that] is structural to the late capitalist cultural economy” (53). Hall draws attention rather to a ubiquitous and ancient medium which always underlaid what might now be called “old media” like print or writing, and which still underlies even technological-cultural developments like social media that postdate Terranova’s 2000 article, namely “language [as] the medium par excellence through which things are ‘represented’ in thought and thus the medium in which ideology is generated and transformed” (Hall 36).

Media then are any means by which representation, communication and meaning-making are performed, whether high-tech or low-tech, evidently material or seemingly immaterial. Culture is the unevenly accumulated result of human labor, a contingent and contested outcome, the tangible and intangible product of the transformations of nature and the given “historical terrain” (Hall 41) by a given society or “social whole” (Althusser 90). This definition of culture is compatible with Anna Tsing’s statement that “all economic forms are produced with the diverse materials of culture” (Tsing 158), with Frantz Fanon’s definition that “a national culture is the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence” (Fanon 233), and with Nancy Fraser’s critique of the contradiction in capitalism’s “hardening of a pre-existing distinction between the human—seen as spiritual, socio-cultural and historical—and non-human nature, seen as material, objectively given and ahistorical” (Fraser 63). The disparate impacts of contemporary environmental developments, from the spread of infectious agents like the novel coronavirus to the inauguration of a new geological epoch (the Anthropocene) defined by industrial influences on the Earth, demonstrate the importance of material-cultural analyses like Fraser’s capable of accounting for combined human and nonhuman causation of unequal outcomes in economic, political, medical, and other domains. In another feminist Marxist materialist-cultural theory, Tsing provides a helpful usage of multidimensional inequality in arguing that “the most important feature of contemporary capitalism is its ‘intersectionality’: that is, the diversity through which women and men of varied class niches and racial, ethnic, national, sexual, and religious positions negotiate power and inequality” (Tsing 152), building to a “defin[ition of] ‘superexploitation’ as exploitation that depends on so-called noneconomic factors such as gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and citizenship status” (158). While not a comprehensive list of axes of oppression, notably omitting ableism, we can define inequality as discrimination among otherwise similar individuals or groups along such lines, resulting in superexploitation and in uneven access to resources that determine life chances and outcomes. Finally, I believe it is not a stretch to read Hall’s account of the above “politicized perspective” on ideology as implicitly defining the political as “historical action against [or in favor of] the prevailing system” (Hall 29), with my bracketed addition necessary to account for the conservative or reactionary political actions of the ruling class or other elements within its “historical bloc”. I find this definition adequate for including conventionally legible political actions such as diplomacy, electioneering, writing polemics for or against public policies and figures, and so on, as well as being capacious enough to encompass economic class struggles and the cultural or ideological processes that produce new forms of consciousness. This definition of “political” is also compatible with other theorists’ usages of this pervasively employed but rarely defined term, such as Fanon with his extended meditations on “the relations between the struggle – whether political or military – and culture” (Fanon 245).

Colonial inequality and its attendant repercussions are among the foremost themes of “The Wretched of the Earth”. Fanon simultaneously affirms the utility of Marxist thought and sounds a clarion call for a rethinking of extant Marxist categories:

“The originality of the colonial context is that economic reality, inequality, and the immense difference of ways of life never come to mask the human realities. When you examine at close quarters the colonial context, it is evident that what parcels out the world is to begin with the fact of belonging to or not belonging to a given race, a given species. In the colonies the economic substructure is also a superstructure. The cause is the consequence; you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich. This is why Marxist analysis should always be slightly stretched every time we have to do with the colonial problem.” (40)

For Fanon, “the colonial world is a Manichean world” (41) in which economic inequality and racial inequality are inseparable, blurring the distinction between base (or substructure) and superstructure. The association of whiteness with wealth and the rights of citizenship is constitutive of the European-dominated class structure, culture and political status ordering of colonized countries, a condition brought about by military conquest and maintained by “the policeman and the soldier who are the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesmen of the settler and his rule of oppression” (38). There is only one possible route to negate this state of affairs: “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (35). Fanon repeatedly restates this thesis, including in the chapter four discussion “On National Culture”: “To fight for national culture means in the first place to fight for the liberation of the nation, that material keystone which makes the building of a culture possible. There is no other fight for culture which can develop apart from the popular struggle” (233). The objective political situation has transformed significantly in the decades since Fanon’s publication – whether in Algeria where he was writing, in other colonized lands around the world, or in the imperialist mother countries of Europe – yet Fanon’s words retain a striking resonance and relevance in the modern neocolonial context, as well. To this day, it is heartening to be reassured that “a colonized people is not alone” (70), and still it rings true that “militating in a national party is not simply taking part in politics; it is choosing the only means whereby they can pass from the status of an animal to that of a human being” (125). For all the revisions proposed by unorthodox Marxists, including Fanon’s elevation of the lumpenproletariat as a revolutionary subject (129-130), none deny the classical Marxist conclusion of the necessity for an armed overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Of course, the coordination of both the masses and the tactics to achieve such a goal remains an ambitious and elusive goal of struggle, relating to several recurring topics of authors cited here, albeit often with distinct phraseologies: the cultural prerequisites to building individuals and groups with the capacity and willingness to take on such political tasks, and the immense challenges to unifying a class or a “counter-systemic bloc” (Fraser 55) posed by unequal material circumstances and uneven consciousness.

“Beyond Marx’s Hidden Abode” argues for the need for such a counter-systemic bloc in the face of capitalism’s indispensable reliance on inequality as expressed in political power and patriarchal culture, along with ecological destruction, as “background conditions of possibility” (60) for the system’s existence. Fraser names these three requirements, each with an associated tendency towards crisis, as follows: “social reproduction – the forms of provisioning, caregiving and interaction that produce and maintain social bonds” (61); “free-riding on nature…made into a resource for capital, one whose value is both presupposed and disavowed” (63); and “capitalism’s political conditions of possibility—its reliance on public powers to establish and enforce its constitutive norms. Capitalism is inconceivable, after all, in the absence of a legal framework underpinning private enterprise and market exchange” (64). This last sentence fits with the development of Fraser’s larger argument that these background conditions form the essential “back-story” (60, 63, 64, 66, 72) to capitalism’s “official mechanism of exploitation – Marx’s ‘front-story’” (60), clearly assigning a basic importance to the “superstructural” domains of patriarchal culture and the politico-legal system, and hence implicitly calling that very designation into question, in another recapitulation of a continual point of contention among contemporary Marxist thinkers. As mentioned above, Fraser’s eco-socialist thought also questions the claimed divides between nature and economy, nature and culture. And finally, we can connect Fraser’s observation that the gendered “split between ‘productive’ waged work and unwaged ‘reproductive’ labour has underpinned modern capitalist forms of women’s subordination” (62) to Tsing’s argument that “gender discrimination is not just an add-on to universal problems of labor” (Tsing 161), and to Terranova’s “acknowledgment [that] the collective aspect of labor implies a rejection of the equivalence between labor and employment, which was already stated by Marx and further emphasized by feminism and the post-Gramscian autonomy” (Terranova 46).

Shifting patterns of cultural production, labor and employment in the modern internet-mediated “digital economy” (35) and society are central to Terranova’s theorization of “how important free affective and cultural labor is to the media industry, old and new” (46). There is a resemblance between other Marxist discussions of (re)production and ideology, such as Althusser’s “know-how” of labor and indeed of all classes (Althusser 88), and Terranova’s description of how “immaterial labor, unlike the knowledge worker, is not completely confined to a specific class formation…but is a form of activity of every productive subject within postindustrial societies” (Terranova 41). The World Wide Web of Terranova’s day provides an example, today more apt than ever, of capital capturing the value of free immaterial labor: “Users keep a site alive through their labor, the cumulative hours of accessing the site (thus generating advertising), writing messages, participating in conversations” (49), and so on. Such participation in media is pervasive in all of our social, economic, cultural and political lives, albeit felt differently on lines of identity and experience that have everything to do with class, yet cannot be neatly reduced to any single dimension.

Tsing’s “Supply Chains and the Human Condition” draws attention to these inequalities in the economic and cultural realms alike, in the interests of “understanding both the continent-crossing scale and the constitutive diversity of contemporary global capitalism… the analysis points to the structural role of difference in the mobilization of capital, labor, and resources” (Tsing 148). Tsing is critical of overgeneralizations based on “nineteenth-century habits in which abstractions about class formation erase the importance of colonialism, patriarchy, and social and cultural diversity” (151), and accordingly for Tsing “it is clear that other figurations of labor are needed to tell effective stories about contemporary capitalism” (154). To establish the thesis that “diversity is thus structurally central to global capitalism, and not decoration on a common core” (148), towards the goal of developing “a more polyglot political theory” (173), an empirical grounding is crucial to Tsing’s theorization of “the ‘bigness’ of global capitalism (that is, both its generality and its scale) without abandoning attention to its heterogeneity” (150). We see through Tsing once again the impossibility of disimbricating the economy from culture, despite the prevalence of theories that problematically attempt to do exactly that:

“Supply chains depend on those very factors banished from the economic; this is what makes them profitable. Supply chains draw upon and vitalize class niches and investment strategies formed through the vicissitudes of gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexuality, age, and citizenship status. We cannot ignore these so-called ‘cultural’ factors in considering the mobilization of labor.” (158)

It is worth noting that Fraser, Terranova, and Tsing all eschew the terminology of base and superstructure. Hall uses “superstructure” only when engaging with explicit mention of the term in Perry Anderson (Hall 28) and Louis Althusser (Hall 31-32), and outside those instances uses “base” only when arguing against a one-way determinacy from the economic to the ideological (Hall 43). And similarly to Fraser’s assignment of primacy to politics in enabling capitalism’s very existence, the (Hall 29) blockquote above clearly suggests that ideological processes of forming new conceptions of the world actually precede the social struggle and historical action capable of bringing about positive change, that is to say the actions of masses in favor of political, cultural and economic transformation. Among contemporary non-orthodox Marxist thinkers, then, the survival of base and superstructure as useful categories of analysis is very much in doubt.

The most straightforward modern defense of this classical Marxist metaphor among the works on the Doc Sem I syllabus is to be found in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, a 1970 text Hall also reads. Althusser opens the discussion by noting that “a social formation which did not reproduce the conditions of production at the same time as it produced would not last a year. The ultimate condition of production is therefore the reproduction of the conditions of production” (Althusser 85). This investigation leads from a consideration of how “the reproduction of labour power requires not only a reproduction of its skills, but also, at the same time, a reproduction of its submission to the rules of the established order” (89), to the obligation to “think what the Marxist tradition calls conjointly the relative autonomy of the superstructure and the reciprocal action of the superstructure on the base” (91). In other words, Althusser shares the interest of the above-cited thinkers in the mutual influence between economy and culture, expressed in an orthodox Marxist language of “the materiality of ideology” (109) similar to Hall. Althusser names eight categories of “ideological state apparatuses” or ISAs which operate in a more or less unified fashion at the superstructural level to ensure reproduction of the conditions of production: religious, educational, family, legal, political, trade-union, communications, and cultural ISAs (96). Althusser leaves open the possibility of revising this typology; I might identify media as defined above with “communications” as Althusser uses it here, and we might add a medical ISA to account for the general need to maintain population health sufficient for social reproduction. The ISAs possess a great deal of institutional power to define “normal” behavior, and frequently alter those definitions to induce stability or change, in some cases drastically – as indeed public health authorities have done in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. ISAs are conceptualized by analogy to the older Marxist conception of the police and military as the “(repressive) state apparatus” (96), but distinguished from it as follows:

“The (Repressive) State Apparatus functions massively and predominantly by repression (including physical repression), while functioning secondarily by ideology. (There is no such thing as a purely repressive apparatus.) … In the same way, but inversely, it is essential to say that for their part the Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they also function secondarily by repression… (There is no such thing as a purely ideological apparatus.) ” (97-98)

Just as base and superstructure are reciprocally influential and relatively autonomous (91), so (physical) repression and ideology are co-constitutive of the reproduction of the fundamentally unequal conditions of production. The importance of the ISAs for social, political and cultural transformation is clear: “no class can hold State power over a long period without at the same time exercising its hegemony over and in the State Ideological Apparatuses” (98). While I do not take direct issue with Althusser’s insistence that the superstructural “upper floors could not ‘stay up’ (in the air) alone, if they did not rest precisely on their base” (91), ultimately I am not convinced that all of the insights of the above-cited authors are accounted for by this metaphor and its conception of “determination in the last instance of what happens in the upper ‘floors’ (of the superstructure) by what happens in the economic base” (92). In particular, my experiences in political and cultural practice to address inequality accord much better with Hall’s emphasis on

“the necessary ‘openness’ of historical development to practice and struggle. We have to acknowledge the real indeterminancy of the political-the level which condenses all the other levels of practice…
This relative openness or relative indeterminancy is necessary to marxism itself as a theory. What is ‘scientific’ about the marxist theory of politics is that it seeks to understand the limits to political action given by the terrain on which it operates…
Understanding ‘determinacy’ in terms of setting of limits, the establishment of parameters, the defining of the space of operations, the concrete conditions of existence, the ‘givenness’ of social practices, rather than in terms of the absolute predictability of particular outcomes, is the only basis of a ‘marxism without final guarantees’…
It would be preferable, from this perspective, to think of the ‘materialism’ of marxist theory in terms of ‘determination by the economic in the first instance,’ since marxism is surely correct, against all idealisms, to insist that no social practice or set of relations floats free of the determinate effects of the concrete relations in which they are located.” (Hall 43)

This is a materialist thesis capable of accounting for contingent outcomes, from broad political trends across nations and years like decolonization in Fanon’s era or like spreading fascism today, to sudden events like economic lockdowns that have in a matter of weeks transformed society, politics and culture. Even where shifts have been too little too late relative to the scale of the threat, as in New York where I live among so many other places, the contrast is striking between the alacritous action contra the COVID-19 pandemic and the relative lack of response to other crises like climate change. Clearly, so-called economic and political impossibilities are in fact within the capacity of coordinated human action; I hope a broader consciousness of this fact might emerge from this moment of avoidable mass death, as a step towards positive social transformation – cultural, political, economic and ecological alike. So far, despite heroic efforts to organize mutual aid and meet other social needs, it has not been encouraging to observe yet another intensification of the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands even as unemployment and general social misery rise, with deaths and other disparate impacts distributed on roughly the same unequal racial and economic fault lines as in other genocidal moments on which capitalism and imperialism have been built: anti-Black, anti-indigenous, orientalist, and anti-poor and working class.

Racial and patriarchal capitalism is the crisis. For all its metamorphoses over the generations, capitalism has never been compatible with social, cultural, and political equality, but has consistently remained vampiric on superexploitation of the life-blood of nations, genders, and the very Earth. Today its relentless logic of accumulation seems to press against social, ecological, and health imperatives harder than ever. In the first instance, our responses to these challenges are constrained or determined by the limits of today’s unequal terrain. That terrain, however, can be progressively transformed by our political efforts to intervene in “ideological terrains of struggle and the task of ideological transformation” (Hall 40), to put existing media to novel uses in communication and organizing, to create new technologies and behaviors appropriate to our cultural values and goals, to redistribute social resources, and to learn to truly respect each other as equals in this fight. In the last instance, the linked struggle to transform our ideologies and our material reality is for our determination – is up to us.

Works Cited:

  • Althusser, Louis. (1970). “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes towards an Investigation.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. NYU Press, Monthly Review Press, 2001.
  • Fanon, Frantz. (1961). “The Wretched Of The Earth.” Translated by Constance Farrington, First Evergreen Edition, Grove Press, 1991.
  • Fraser, Nancy. (2014). “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode: For an Expanded Conception of Capitalism.” New Left Review, 86, 55-72.
  • Hall, Stuart. (1986). “The Problem of Ideology-Marxism without Guarantees.” Journal of Communication Inquiry, 10(2), 28-44.
  • Terranova, Tiziana. (2000). “Free labor: Producing culture for the digital economy.” Social Text, 18(2), 33-58.
  • Tsing, Anna. (2009). “Supply chains and the human condition.” Rethinking Marxism, 21(2), 148-176.